Unconnected to the national grid and shunned by major investors, the local community in Pakistan’s Chitral Valley has for decades been involved in the generation of hydropower, primarily through the Aga Khan Rural Support Program(AKRSP). That success story has been endorsed by the provincial Khyber Pakhthunkhwa government, which has entrusted the task of executing over 50 mini hydropower plants (MHPs) in the valley to the community.
In a remarkable story of people participation and involvement, electricity from small hydropower plants is not only supplied to households, but also to educational institutions, commercial areas – and in some areas to government offices, including police stations and cantonments of the paramilitary Chitral force.
For the people of Chitral, the journey to self sufficiency started in the early 1980s when AKRSP launched its development programmes through community participation. Over the years, small local community organisations helped build excellent social infrastructure for the smooth implementation of development projects – the reason why the provincial government, led by former cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), last year entrusted 55 MHPs in the district to AKRSP to build and run them through the local community.
The success of the Chitral model has seen the government do the same in 11 other districts of Khyber Pakhthunkhwa.
“We first observed the mini-plants in Garam Chashma, Bumburat and Laspur areas of Chitral, which have been operated by the community for decades, and then awarded the 55 projects to AKRSP through competitive bidding,” said Saqeb Mushtaq, resident engineer, Pakhtunkhwa Energy Development Organisation (PEDO). More than 12,000 people will benefit in Chitral district alone from the government’s initiative.
There is similar potential in other districts where the community can be involved in building and operating the plants, he said. Though there are some community based power stations in Hunza and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Dir district, these are few in number. Chitral is the only example of large-scale community based MHPs.
The official disclosed that some community based MHPs were being constructed in areas where electricity is available from the government grid. “We will see how the community runs them in a competitive environment. This will be a test for the community and we will build more such MHPs if this experience succeeds,” Mushtaq told thethirdpole.net.
The Chitral example
The total energy requirement of Chitral is 40MW and 6.2 MW will be added once the 55 new MHPs, funded by the provincial government, are complete, estimated Engineer Ziaullah, deputy project manager at AKRSP. “We will complete these projects within 18 months of their starting…,” he said, adding that the electricity shortage in Chitral could be overcome within three years if funding was available for additional plants.
Jahanzeb, another official with AKRSP, said the group has set up 176 MHPs in various villages of the Chitral district since 1990. The accumulative installed capacity of these power stations is 7MW and they currently produce 4.5MW.
With a population of 500,000, Chitral is the largest district of the province, covering 40% of the area. Its scattered population is one of the reasons why small hydropower projects are considered the most viable solution to meet the power needs. The valley, which is in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountain range and has many glaciers and streams, has the potential to produce 5,000MW of electricity.
In the past, this potential was not tapped due to lack of resources and the government’s disinterest. But things have changed over the years.
“We engaged the local community first to build and then to operate these small plants,” said Dajat Muhammad, AKRSP project director. This model, he added, was successful for the construction of small power plants within deadline and with limited resources.
In his view, the decades of engagement in the development process has started paying off with people now trained enough to handle small projects and provide electricity for not just their own homes but for surrounding areas too.
“Chitral is also prone to natural disasters. The community is so active that if there is any disaster and damage to these power plants, local community organisations take the lead in repairing and restoring electricity without waiting for government machinery,” Dajat noted.
Anut Baig, president of the Jafakash Tanzeem, a village organisation in Berrir, said AKRSP had established a 50KV hydropower plant in early 1992. It was the first ever community MHP in their small village of 150 households. The community had been running and looking after the plant after AKSP handed over the responsibility about 20 years ago, he said.
“This was a great job done by AKRSP for our village. We not only use the electricity for cooking and lighting, but our women also use electric machines for different purposes.”
Now, another 75KV plant is under construction. This would meet the village’s entire demand for electricity.
Some community members have set up personal power plants on a commercial basis.
Muhammad Khan, for instance, has set up a 1MW plant in his village Ayun and sells electricity to thousands of households, factories, educational institutions stations of telecommunication companies.
He first established a small hydropower plant in 1997 after getting the idea from AKRSP plants in different areas. The initiative was a success and the plant gradually grew to the 1MW station that it is today. He sells electricity to households at Rs.6 per unit as compared to over Rs.10 per unit provided by the government in other areas because there is no tax component.
There are damages too, particularly during the monsoons, leading to huge losses every year. But Khan says he’s not in it for the money. There is a small profit margin but he looks on the plant as community service that not only provides electricity but also employment to about 200 people.
According to government policy, a local community organisation or individual can only produce electricity up to 1MW. Beyond that, they have to get a no objection certificate (NOC) from the government and add it to the national grid.
MHPs are a successful model for other mountainous areas too, said AKRSP’s Jahanzeb. “Our future plan is to go beyond MHPs. We will establish big plants to meet the growing demands of the people of the area… Since 2010, we have started installing plants of 500-800KV.”
AKRSP officials disclose that there are plans to establish small grids in different valleys; 32 sites have been identified for the purpose and feasibility studies conducted. Such a system will help provide reliable and consistent electricity to all the villages through local grids. At present, if a small power plant is not working for some reason, there is a blackout till repairs are completed.
Community based utility companies are also being formed to maintain and regulate projects greater than 500KV, said AKRSP’s Mehrban Khan. Such an initiative will convert community contribution for power generation into community investment; people will get shares of these companies.
The government is continuing to keep tabs as well.
Anwer Zeb, a provincial government appointed monitoring officer of the project, said his role is to maintain a check on the construction of the 55 MHPs in Chitral. “I visit the sites of the projects to check the material use by the constructors and the technical aspects of the projects as well as the participation of the local community,” he said.
Zeb said that a monitoring report is prepared every week and presented to the authorities to ensure that the projects are being completed transparently and within deadline.
There are many challenges. Flash floods in the Chitral river in July left about 250,000 people stranded and saw major roads irrigation and water systems and power stations damaged. Of the six power stations damaged, four were community run powers houses — in Ayun, Rumbor and Shugram and Broz – and two were government run power stations.
Giving details, PEDO’s Mushtaq said the government-run power station at Rashun was completely washed away, leaving most of upper Chitral in darkness. The three kilometre link road to the power house has been washed away and there is no alternate road.